A lack of depth at center in 2020-21 forced Minnesota Duluth to play captain Noah Cates, a natural wing, in the center all season long.
That should not be the case in 2021-22 if the Bulldogs freshman class has anything to say about it. Coach Scott Sandelin has brought in five freshmen this season, including three forwards — Dominic James, Kyler Kleven and Carter Loney — who played wing and center in juniors.
Sandelin said throughout the lineup, he believes this Bulldogs team has more depth this year compared to the Bulldogs team that was ousted in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals a year ago, thanks in part to this year’s freshman class.
“It’s a good mix of kids. Some of those guys are going to have to step in and play,” Sanelin said. “They’re going to be good for us in time. Some of them are going to get thrust into it right away. Some are going to have to work their way into it. We’ll see, it’s up to them.”
The Bulldogs technically lost just one center from last year’s squad when Noah’s older brother, Jackson, signed with the Philadelphia Flyers after his junior season. UMD returns senior center Jesse Jacques out of Hermantown and brought in a senior graduate transfer, former Miami RedHawk Casey Gilling, who Sandelin said will be anchoring one of the team’s top two lines in 2021-22.
That leaves two spots left to fill — if UMD wants to keep Noah Cates at wing — and while stepping in as a freshman and playing the middle can be hard for a freshman, Cates said the size and compete level of James makes him a prime candidate to be centering a UMD forward line when the puck drops on the regular season Oct. 8 at Bemidji State.
James centered the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League each of the two previous seasons. Originally slated to play a third season of juniors in 2021-22, the Bulldogs brought James in a year early to bolster the middle after St. Cloud’s Jack Smith decided to defer his enrollment by a year to play a second season of juniors coming off a shoulder injury.
James, a 19-year-old native of Plymouth, Michigan, is coming off a strong USHL season in which he tallied 12 goals and 22 assists in 52 games for the Stars.
“The year that he had, he’s got a lot of confidence and he’s a good, competitive player with skill. He’s a guy I’m very intrigued by,” Sandelin said. “He kind of fits our mold. I’m excited to see where he’s going to go.”
The fourth center position is what remains up for grabs.
Junior Luke Loheit and sophomore Blake Biondi both took turns centering the fourth line a year ago, with Biondi anchoring the line early in the season before shifting to wing. Loheit finished at center after starting the season at wing.
Sandelin said both are options at center this year, or the team could turn to one of its other freshmen — Kleven and Loney.
Loney, a 19-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, started last season playing center for the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers before moving to wing. Kleven — a native of Moorhead, Minnesota, who turns 21 next month — played everything a year ago for the USHL’s Waterloo Blackhawks.
Kleven said he’s more comfortable on the wing, but willing to play where ever the coaches want him to play, just as his captain did a year ago for the Bulldogs.
“Whatever it is, whatever I need to do to get in the lineup and help the Bulldogs win, that's all that matters to me,” Kleven said.
In addition to the three forwards, UMD’s freshman class includes a pair of defensemen in Will Francis and Owen Gallatin. They join a nine-man blue line that lost just one in senior graduate transfer Matt Cairns from a year ago.
Gallatin, 19, of Hugo, Minnesota, played two seasons with Bulldogs sophomore defenseman Connor Kelley and the USA Hockey National Team Development Program before spending 2020-21 with the USHL’s Fargo Force.
An older group with an average age of 19 years and 10 months — in comparison, UMD’s six sophomores average 20 years, 1 month — Cates said this year’s freshman class is reminiscent of he and Jackson’s freshman class in 2018-19. It’s an older group that brings in a lot of experience, and is ready to play right away.
“It's been an awesome group and it's been fun to work with them,” Cates said. “They are guys that are ready to play. They know they can contribute and they know they have roles.
“I think we got a really good thing going and that's a good thing to go on for the next couple years.”